Music

To Lefty to Willie to Phossy with Love

Photo (partial) found on The Tripwire.com

Even in railing against the influence of another, the musician must admit that influence and its inescapability. Like Br’er Rabbit and the tar baby, every blow struck just brings the two closer together.

Trawling through the music blogs recently, I came across the above picture that made my day. It’s a picture of Willie Nelson with his arm around a starstruck (and at least slightly stoned) young man at the State Theater in New Jersey. It's a pretty unremarkable fan pic, except that the young man in question is Matt Houck, front man of the Brooklyn-based Phosphorescent, whose recent album To Willie amounts to a musical love letter addressed to the artist Houck claims has been more influential to him than any other.

Listening to earlier albums by Phosphorescent, one doesn’t immediately pick up on the influence of Willie Nelson. Houck’s gently cracking voice immediately calls to mind Will Oldham, while the almost teasing quiet of the instrumentation links Houck to contemporaries like Iron & Wine. Then there are aspects of Phosphorescent’s first two albums that were anything but contemporary, reaching back to the Carter Family and the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers for a mountain gospel sound marked by shape note singing, a distinctive harmony structure with deep roots in the South.

On the first two albums, Houck uses this sound to evoke a haunted quality shared by some of Nelson’s material, but the consistently somber sound of Phosphorescent shows little of Nelson’s genius for melding the sounds of weariness and sadness with a gentle good humor.

All the more surprising then, that when picking Nelson tunes to cover for the tribute album, Houck chooses not to dwell entirely in the shadowy end of Nelson’s catalog (although his renditions of “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way”, “Permanently Lonely” and “Can I Sleep In Your Arms” are paralyzingly powerful), but romps through songs like “I Gotta Get Drunk” and “Pick Up the Tempo” with a looseness, not to mention humor, barely hinted at in Houck’s earlier work.

The influences upon a musician operate in ways impossible to chart. For some artists, an adopted style can serve as a cocoon within which their nascent style can develop and eventually emerge, a sort of artistic mentor, but it can just as easily become a cage. Favorite artists can provide a comfort zone musicians to return to recharge or simply relax, as with Bruce Springsteen’s gloriously slapdash We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Or they can be objects of an almost Oedipal hatred: an idol to be torn down. But even in railing against the influence of another artist, the musician must admit that influence and its inescapability. Like Br’er Rabbit and the tar baby, every blow struck just brings the two closer together.

Rebelling against influence can produce remarkable results, as the career of Willie Nelson demonstrates. Nelson and other members of the so-called outlaw country movement were reacting against the Nashville country music establishment, but in attempting to become everything the establishment wasn’t, they demonstrated their keen knowledge of everything it was and in doing so, redefined what it could be.

One of the defining traits of Willie Nelson’s career has been his rebellion against the slick, polished Nashville sound, most recently by remastering his own Nashville recordings and removing the Countrypolitian production excesses he felt marred the original songs to produce this year’s Naked Willie album, utilizing the same skills of songcraft he developed as a Nashville songwriter.

At the same time, members of the outlaw movement were always willing to cite and pay tribute to those artists whose music they felt an overwhelming affinity for. Both Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings sent loving musical missives to country swing pioneer Bob Wills (Haggard’s A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World [or, My Salute to Bob Wills] and Jennings’ “Bob Wills is Still the King”), and in 1977, Nelson released To Lefty, an album of Lefty Frizzell covers recorded just before the fellow Texan’s death and held back from release out of Nelson’s respect for the singer.

If not for To Lefty, one might not immediately guess at the importance of Frizzell to Nelson’s music; their songwriting styles are markedly different and Frizzell drifted out of his trademark honky tonk sound into a more commercial Nashville sound around the same time Nelson was becoming disenchanted with that sound. But hearing Nelson’s renditions of Frizzell’s tunes reveals the depth of their impact on Nelson, an impact not so much overt as genetic: Frizzell’s laidback delivery underlies Nelson’s singing style, one of many elements that Nelson synthesizes into something entirely his own. After listening to To Lefty, the listener can go back to previous Nelson albums with a new ear.

Phosphorescent’s recent album, styled entirely on Nelson’s tribute album down to the cover font and the album label’s message, “To Willie, from Phossy” (To Lefty’s label reads “To Lefty, from Willie”) similarly highlights the importance of Willie Nelson to Matt Houck’s work, the presence of Nelson’s music in Houck’s artistic DNA. The album changes the way the listener hears previous Phosphorescent albums, revealing the insistent hopefulness of even Houck’s most apparently bleak songs, a quality shared by some of Nelson’s most heart-wrenching ballads: despair is never quite submitted to and the beauty of the song remains as a spark of hope.

Houck also lays a lasting claim on the songs, playing them not in a slavish reiteration of Nelson’s style, but in an adaptation of Houck’s style best suited to the material, which retains aspects of Nelson’s delivery, those aspects nearest to the heart of Phosphorescent’s musical project, while adding new elements.

Perhaps most importantly for Houck, who has stated that he was always going to make this album, it was only a matter of when, embracing the influence of Willie Nelson’s music has opened new doors, personally, commercially and artistically. At the very least, it got him a phone call from the man himself, an invite onto the famed tour bus, and a chance to perform at Nelson’s 76th birthday party. The album has gotten more widespread press and exposed Phosphorescent to an audience outside the standard indie rock circles.

And by allowing some of the humor that made him love Nelson’s songs to blossom in his own, Houck has raised hopes that the next Phosphorescent album, due out later this year, will have a laugh or two to balance out the tears. As Houck turns out the lights on To Willie, an album more upbeat than any of his previous efforts, yet still carrying his unique voice, Houck promises, almost smirking, that tomorrow he’ll start the whole damn thing again.

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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